A trial by rumour

The way the House of Lords panels probed the expense claims of some of its members, including mine, has shaken my faith in the institution, says Swraj Paul.

india Updated: May 21, 2011 17:04 IST
Swraj Paul
Swraj Paul
Hindustan Times

Over the last few months, there has been many comments about the events concerning the British House of Lords and me. But many of those comments were based on misinformation and certain facts were distorted. The procedures and conclusions of the House committees involved in the issue have been grossly unfair.

Over a year ago, allegations were made in the British press that about 20 members of the House, including myself, had wrongly claimed reimbursements for certain expenses. Although what I had claimed was well within the conventions and practices of the House at that time, I immediately demanded an investigation by the Clerk of the Parliaments and was prepared to repay the claims that were being questioned. The Clerk suggested a re-check of my accounts by the staff of the House. On their findings, I repaid £41,982, an amount relating to only 18 months of the 14 years I have served in the House.

Then, three strange events took place:

First: among those whose claims were questioned was the Lord Speaker of the House. He had claimed £200,000 as overnight allowances and because of the amount of the claim a careful and transparent inspection was expected. It is not clear whether any investigation was held and, if so, how carefully it was conducted. In fact, the Clerk quickly cleared the Lord Speaker’s case, even though she continued to preside over the House Committee that was investigating the claims of others.

Second: The House Committee comprising 12 members of the House (most of whom had themselves made overnight allowance claims) arbitrarily changed the rules concerning the ‘main residence’ — in effect retroactively redefining the boundaries of their alleged transgression.

Third: As a result, the Lords whose reimbursement claims had been questioned were subjected to little or no investigation. They were only asked to give ‘written assurances’ to the Clerk that their claims were valid. On the basis of these unchecked personal assurances, they were all exonerated by the end of March this year.

But I was treated differently. As stated earlier, I had requested the Clerk to examine my claims and voluntarily repaid £41,982 on October 28, 2009. Nonetheless, apparently driven by a section of the press and a complaint made by a member of the House of Commons (noted for his hostility to then Prime Minister Gordon Brown), my case was referred to the Metropolitan Police.

On February 25, 2010, the Metropolitan Police informed me that no action would be taken. Their investigations were concluded and discontinued. After this, anyone would have assumed that the matter had ended.

This, however, was not enough for the Clerk. Despite my voluntary repayment and the closure of the police inquiry, the Clerk on March 5, 2010, requested the Sub-Committee on Lords’ Interests to further investigate my case. An unusual and an unnecessary delay of over three months then took place. Nothing happened for seven weeks and then Parliament was dissolved for the general election. Eventually, a reconvened Sub-Committee began proceedings in June 2010.

For it to do so, the Clerk sent to the Sub-Committee all documents relating to my case, except the letter from the Police concluding that no further action was necessary. Why was this vital document withheld?

I was asked to appear before the Sub-Committee on June 17, 2010. When I did, I was astonished at the antagonistic attitude of its two most vocal members — especially the overtly hostile conduct of one particular member. The transcript shows that in just over an hour, I was subjected to 177 comments and questions, this particular individual making 122 (69%) of them. Although his manner was prosecutorial and accusatory, no attempt was made to restrain him.

The overall atmosphere of the Sub-Committee hearing was like a kangaroo court. I was astounded to be asked questions like “… you regard yourself as very rich by comparison with most of mankind”; and “… you accept that by comparison with a great majority of this world you are rich.” Later, my attempts to explain that those differences of interpretation may have been due to cultural perceptions and background were treated with almost colonial disdain.

Nobody wanted to know why I had maintained that my claims were valid according to the practices prevailing in the House in 2005-06.

The final published report (HL Paper 37) even contains transcripts of telephone conversations secretly recorded by the Sunday Times that were considered as evidence by the Sub-Committee — illegally gathered material that no court of law would admit. This is a shocking violation of human rights — especially so since recordings of my conversations showed how innocuous they were.

All this seems to strongly indicate that this Sub-Committee had decided on its verdict in advance and would go to any length to enact the outcome they had pre-determined.

Although assurances of confidentiality were given to me by the committees, the Clerk and the Registrar for Lords’ Interests, information about the proceedings and the verdicts was leaked to the media before I was officially informed. This was trial by rumour. Such information could only come from the Sub-Committee itself, and those associated with it. I was not allowed to publicly defend myself until October 18, 2010 — a full year after the allegations were first made.

The Sub-Committee held that I had acted dishonestly and recommended suspension from the House for six months.

I appealed these Sub-Committee judgements to the Privileges Committee. Then, what can only be construed as a forceful attempt to intimidate the Privileges Committee took place. In a press interview (Daily Telegraph, October 25), the Chairman of the Sub-Committee’s threatened to resign if the panel’s recommendations were not accepted by the Privileges Committee. The Privileges Committee rejected the Sub-Committee’s conclusions.

The Privileges Committee concluded that I had not acted dishonestly or in bad faith. They said I had been negligent and acted in ignorance, as I had already stated many months earlier. The Privileges Committee also rejected the Sub-Committee’s recommendation of suspension and reduced it to four months. For infractions such as negligence and ignorance, a four-month suspension seems unduly harsh.

Another bizarre aspect of this situation is that the House has now discontinued the procedures to which I was subjected. A new set of procedures will replace the older ones. Presenting the report of the Committee for Privileges and Conduct to the House on October 21, Lord Brabazon said that past procedures “present some difficulties” and there will be no more investigations conducted under the old rules. His statements were accepted by the House.

If the procedures of the past have had to be so quickly replaced, those who have recently been penalised by those defective procedures should not be victimised. This entire process has shaken my faith in the House as an exemplar of justice and fair play. I have called for a full public inquiry into the claims of all peers during the past 10 years to ascertain the merits of all claims — and to determine whether double standards of punishment have been imposed.

Because I feel so strongly about this and intend to speak out frankly and freely without the constraints of office, I have resigned as Deputy Speaker of the House.

Swraj Paul is Member, House of Lords The views expressed by the author are personal.

First Published: Dec 05, 2010 21:13 IST